In many ways, Sam Steiner’s You Stupid Darkness is an odd play. The set-up is that of a standard sit-com. Like any classic from Dad’s Army to Blackadder or The Thin Blue Line, a group of seemingly ineffectual characters are gathered together with a common aim – in this case, staffing the phones at Brightline, a help line for those in need of someone to talk to.
In this case, Captain Mainwaring becomes Frances (Jenni Maitland), heavily pregnant and motherly to the extreme. No matter how appalling her incompetent team are, it’s back pats and jaffa cakes all round to keep up morale. Then there’s Joey, the young inexperienced one who is scared of the phone and keeps swearing (Andrew Finnigan), Angie, the ditsy one who talks more about herself than listens to anyone on the phone (Lydia Larson) and Jon, the grumpy one who has a proper life outside and doesn’t seem to belong here (Andy Rush). So far, so normal.
Except… everything seems to be played out against a looming apocalypse. Every time the team come in it’s through fire, smoke or a raging blizzard and they’re wearing obligatory gas masks. Technology is breaking down one thing at a time (starting, of course, with kettles, the mainstay of civilised society). When Joey meets Frances, it’s the first time he’s seen a pregnant woman for years. All the signs of the end of the world are being presented to us, and yet the ill-executed rituals of the call centre, the banal conversations, the general silliness of the sit-coms we all know and love all continue as if nothing were happening outside.
It is as act one draws to a close and act two starts that the show comes into its own. Two dimensional characters gather weight, preconceptions are challenged, and the title of the show comes into focus, but maybe that’s the point. Dad’s Army is set in wartime and The Thin Blue Line is based around a police force – surely neither of those things are funny, but we accept the premise and go along with it. So if crime and war can be funny, then why not the end of the world?
The closest comparison is surely Blackadder. Act one of You Stupid Darkness replicates all of the silliness, ineptitude and irreverence of the wartime Blackadder Goes Forth, and act two is the moment when these characters that we have come to know and love finally go over the top, becoming real to us along with the scenario that we’ve blithely accepted as a backdrop to the weekly punchlines. Steiner’s characters aren’t about to throw themselves into the apocalypse outside but as the world clearly hits rock bottom, inside the barely habitable Brightline phone-room the four volunteers have finally become real people with real lives that we actually care about.
You Stupid Darkness! plays at Southwark Playhouse until 22 February
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